NBC News: New York bail changes set to take effect in January despite late swell of opposition

Originally published in NBC News on December 30, 2019.

Cash bail requirements and pretrial detention will be eliminated for those accused of most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

A law eliminating cash bail for most nonviolent crimes will soon take effect in New York, in spite of a late surge of opposition from lawmakers, district attorneys and police chiefs.

Criminal justice reform advocates have hailed the move, which is part of a package of criminal justice changes passed by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature in April and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as an essential step toward a fairer court system. But critics mounted an effort to postpone the changes, which they contend threaten public safety and are not sufficiently financed.

 

In a news conference earlier this month, Cuomo responded to calls to delay the law's implementation, saying that he does not believe the Legislature "is at all interested in slowing down the effective date."

"It is change, and change is often opposed by the system," he said. “This change has been done by other states … The wheels did not fall off the car.”

The changes, which are slated to go into effect Jan. 1, will discard cash bail requirements and pretrial detention in lieu of appearance tickets for suspects accused of most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Democraticstate Sen. Michael Gianaris, who authored the Bail Elimination Act that was incorporated into the state’s budget, called the change “long overdue.”

“We believe we have a system where one is innocent until proven guilty, but in reality it was that people were guilty until proven rich,” he said.

New York’s changes come amid a growing movement across the nation to reconsider the cash bail system. New Jersey, one of the most recent states to overhaul its bail policies, has been widely lauded as a successful example of pretrial reform.

Currently, 66 percent of New York's total jail population consists of inmates awaiting sentencing, according to statistics from the New York State Division of the Budget. A July report from policy research organization The Vera Institute of Justice projected that New York's bail changes will reduce the state's pretrial jail population by at least 40 percent — even more than the reduction New Jersey achieved with its steps, according to the organization.

However, critics have argued that New York's changes go too far and were passed too hastily. Some lawmakers and state district attorneys, including David Soares, attorney general of Albany County, have pushed to stall the law's implementation.

"What we have right now is a criminal justice reform measure that provides zero funding to build in the supports to ensure that offenders who were accused will return to court," Soares said in an interview.

After a knife attack that wounded five at a Hanukkah party at rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, Saturday night, New York City councilmen Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch renewed criticism of recent local and state criminal justice reforms, such as the City Council's approval of a plan to close of the Rikers Island prison complex, they say come at the expense of public safety amid a rash of anti-Semitic violence.

"It's open season on Jews in New York, and we can't even get a dollar for armed security at our synagogues," the pair said in a joint statement on Twitter Sunday. "But by all means, let's spend $8 billion dollars tearing down Rikers and building new jails."

Days earlier, Deutsch circulated a petition opposing the bail changes and other aspects of Albany's reforms set to take effect Jan 1. Tweeting in response to Cuomo, who called the attack in Monsey an act of "domestic terrorism" in remarks to reporters Sunday, Deutsch said, "With all due respect@NYGovCuomo - I don’t care what you call it. If 95% of the perpetrators are released hours after they commit attacks, it’ll keep happening."

In November, Republican state Sen. Jim Tedisco and Democratic Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara introduced legislation that would restore some discretion to judges to rule if a suspect should be held on bail. Tedisco also proposed a one-year moratorium to keep the law from going into effect. Neither proposal has advanced, but Tedisco and other lawmakers — as well as President Donald Trump — cited fears that the law would allow violent offenders back on the street.

Trump tweeted in November that "hardened & bad" criminals would be let loose. In a recent statement, Republican state Sen. Pamela Helming slammed the law as a “public safety nightmare," suggesting that the cash bail exemptions could apply to those charged with rape or murder.

Under the new law, 10 percent of the offenses winding through New York's justice system — violent crimes, including most felonies, all sex-related charges as well as a number of domestic violence offenses — will still not qualify for cash bail exemptions, according to The Vera Institute of Justice's report.

Amid the pushback, advocacy groups banded together to voice renewed support for the law, which they maintain will significantly reduce recidivism and diminish the state’s incarcerated population.

Khalil Cumberbatch, chief strategist of the criminal justice advocacy coalition New Yorkers United for Justice, believes the changes will “save fiscal resources and lessen the human toll” of the state’s current pretrial policies.

“These reforms will make the New York state criminal justice system a fairer, safer and more just system to go through — a system that doesn’t give added benefits to folks who can afford all the luxuries,” Cumberbatch said. “All we’re doing is leveling the playing field.”

Gianaris said he hopes that New Yorkers will give the changes a chance.

“I believe [the criticisms] are ill-informed at best and misleading at worst,” he said. “I think the Legislature’s anxious to have [the reforms] implemented and then evaluate how it’s working, rather than give into fear-mongering and hysteria and make changes before a good law can take effect.”

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